Don’t let Airbnb, Uber, or Peers redefine sharing

When thought leaders are VC-funded you have to be careful. Market cheerleaders Peers and SOCAP associated themselves with alternative economics by holding a conference about sharing economies. The message seems to be that market exchange can be called sharing when it happens between web users. It reads to me like pressure to paint orthodox concepts with the glow of the exciting discourse around alternative economic models. Fortunately, conference participants wasted no time critiquing their magnanimous hosts. But even the most well-developed criticisms seem to be buying into the reframing that sharing is a satisfactory word for what happens on sites like Airbnb.

It sounds like one purpose of the Share Conference was to raise a question, What is sharing really? The implication is that these inspiring revolutionaries are pushing the idea in new directions, and that it needs to be revised to accommodate their bigness. That’s bunk. The word share is fine meaning precisely what it means, to divide ownership of a resource. The word exchange means something different, to give a resource in return for another of equal value, and a thesaurus isn’t a dictionary. People who want to read market exchange as sharing are up to something, some combination of

  • Selling a product
  • Associating themselves with freshness
  • Assuring themselves that they are Good People doing Good Things

Don’t get me wrong, markets are great, and they are capable of doing a great job of distributing resources in uncertain environments. But they aren’t new, and as inventiveness goes, opening new resources to market distribution is a relatively unimaginative application of the web. These entrepreneurs are following an old, distinguished formula, and there are lots of great words for that, but ‘revolutionary’ isn’t one of them. I use Airbnb, and I’ve been impressed by Uber, but if you want me to believe that these contributions are new, then I’m bored. For me, there is only one interesting question in this space: Why do the developers of these market institutions want to think of themselves as facilitators of a fluffy value like sharing? There is some branding in there, but I think there’s something more. I think that expressions like the Share Conference are the sound of successful entrepreneurs trying to drown out their own quiet doubts about market ideology.